Tuesday, November 29, 2011

George Harrison - not the Fabbest but still pretty Fab

For me, remembering to post about notable anniversaries is a bit like sending birthday cards: a couple of weeks out from the day I make a mental note not to forget. Then it doesn't cross my mind until after the event has passed.

In the nick of time I've remembered that today is the tenth anniversary of George Harrison's death. I had intended to watch Martin Scorcese's two-part documentary on the Quiet One and use it as the basis for my argument that he was the true genius of The Beatles. But I forgot either to record the second part or watch it when it was available on iPlayer.

While I note that at least one person has tried, it isn't really tenable to argue for George as the greatest Beatle. He's my favourite because he was the plucky underdog who emerged from the shadows of the other two. I quite like his songs too.

His solo career showed that he wasn't quite the songwriting equal of John and Paul. Yes, All things must pass is a great album because he had built up a backlog of material, having been rationed to two songs per album with The Beatles. The follow up Living in the material world is a fine piece of work also, perhaps underrated because his religious preoccupations are to the fore. But after that he ran out of steam, and I suspect it was because he didn't have the others to keep up with. His solo albums between the mid-70s and mid-80s each had their strong tracks, but overall lacked inspiration or ambition.

It was only when he started working with Jeff Lynne of ELO fame that things got better. 1987's Cloud Nine was a return to form, the first Travelling Wilburys album was very good and the posthumous Brainwashed , probably the second best of his career.

While George was known to complain that his songs didn't always get a fair hearing in The Beatles, I suspect he needed strong collaborators to inspire him to great work, and he was fortunate that they didn't come much better than his Fab colleagues.

The YouTube link is to Sam Brown singing one of George Harrison's very last songs Horse to the water from the tribute Concert for George. His own version, a collaboration with Jools Holland, was recorded shortly before he died and doesn't quite have the oomph that the song deserves. Sam Brown really does it justice. Unfortunately the audio and video are badly out of synch so it's better listened to than watched. Frustratingly also, the song can only be downloaded from iTunes with the whole album. These tribute things are normally pretty uneven overall, but this is one of the best cover versions of a Harrissong.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Coventry, rugby, nostalgia

Today, for the first time in six years, I made a trip to the midlands to watch a Coventry Rugby Club home match - this one against National Division One leaders Ealing Trailfinders.

Coventry is my birthplace and I have supported the city's rugby team since childhood. Until the 1980s they were one of the big beasts of English rugby, up there with Leicester, Gloucester and the leading Welsh club sides. The first game I ever watched was the great David Duckham's last home match in a Cov shirt.

Until a few years ago, I would generally get to a couple of home games each year, combining watching the match with a visit to my grandparents. But when grandad died five years ago, and then my grandmother moved south to be cared for by my mother, there was no personal reason to visit Coventry any more. It seemed perverse to take a whole day out of a busy life to watch second tier (and now third tier) rugby. The more so as we have Saracens playing premiership rugby ten minutes' walk away - although Saracens have never really adopted Watford and in turn I have never quite adopted them.

Anyway, because it conjured up family memories it was quite a sentimental trip today, but an enjoyable one, not least because my team won. It is nice to see that at this semi-professional level, players still stop to talk to supporters, club officials are relaxed about people wandering on to the pitch after the game, and generally the corporate takeover of rugby that one sees in the premiership is thankfully absent.

In days gone by Cov were famed for their forward game, and tended to see off southern teams like Rosslyn Park and Harlequins who threw the ball about a lot but never won anything. It was a bit like that today. Ealing came at Cov with their effete passing and offloading game, displaying the kind of skilful play that so disfigures the modern game. But Cov were having none of it and scored a winning try in injury time after a rolling maul which at one point included 13 of Cov's 15 players.

Cov have a long way to go to regain their glory days but perhaps today was a start.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Whatever the truth, Roebuck's suicide was a terrible, lonely death

For one with not much more than a passing interest in cricket, I have found myself pondering the fate of Peter Roebuck rather more than I would have expected.

I hope it is not pure ghoulishness. Rather it is the combination of how the story has unfolded and the struggle of a media that likes people to be monsters or angels either to know what to say about someone who may have been a bit of both.

On another day I might not have even clicked the button to read the reports of his death. I remembered his role as Somerset captain in the 1980s and his part in the controversy over the Richards/Garner/Botham departures and vaguely aware that he had gone on to become a cricket writer. But beyond that he hadn't much permeated my consciousness and it was intriguing to learn of this brilliant but tormented soul, whose suicide somehow didn't completely surprise those who knew him.

But there was more than that. However tactfully, most obituaries and tributes referred to his 2001 conviction for caning three 19-year-olds whom he was coaching. This is the sort of information that once known permanently colours one's perception of anybody. An open-minded person might reflect that the history of sport is littered with charismatic coaches with odd methods, and consider that this may have been an error of judgement for which Roebuck was righly punished, but which should not be held against him for all time. Yet it is hard to avoid agreeing with the trial judge's reported comment that: 'It seems so unusual that it must have been done to satisfy some need in you'.

When those who had spent the day of his suicide with Roebuck reported that they saw no sign of what was to come, one sensed the grim inevitability of unpleasant revelations explaining his apparently sudden decision. And so it proved: his leap from a sixth-floor window was triggered by his imminent arrest on a charge of sexual assault.

This leaves judgement on his life and reputation in a strange state of limbo. Any fair-minded person would avoid judging the motivation for his suicide. It might have been fear of his guilt being exposed. But equally, even if innocent he would have known that his reputation would never quite recover. Even if not convicted there would be a sense he had 'got off' rather than been exonerated. The later accusation, combined with the earlier conviction and his charitable work helping young men through university would be combined to create a picture of a sordid predator. Already you don't have to look far to read an article about Roebuck written as if an accusation is proof of guilt and indeed of serial wrongdoing.

All of which might amount to an argument for defendants in cases of sexual assault or rape to be given anonymity, along with the victims. Who knows whether Roebuck, if innocent, would be alive today if there was a chance he could have cleared his name without facing trial by media also?

But issues around anonymity are not that straightforward and that wasn't really my purpose in writing about this. (And for avoidance of doubt I should add that sexual assault is an appalling crime and the police should assiduously investigate any report of it, however talented or philanthropic the alleged perpetrator.) Rather it is just a sense of the cruel vicissitudes that attend the human condition.

Perhaps a young man hoping for a way out of poverty and a new chance in life found himself suffering a grotesque sexual assault at the hands of his supposed benefactor. Or a brilliant but troubled man faced the horror of a false accusation when they were merely trying to do good. Either on its own is awful enough, but whatever happened led to a terrible, lonely death. Whether Roebuck was guilty or innocent, one would need a heart of stone not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the whole story.

PS: Clearly plenty of people have felt troubled by this story. I have also read these very measured pieces by Howard Jacobson and Geoff Lemon.

Book Review: Robert Ingham and Duncan Brack (eds) Peace, reform and liberation

This has been a busy, busy week, with no time for blogging. I did, however, make my
debut as a Liberal  Democrat Voice contributor, with my review of the Liberal Democrat History Group's new history of Liberal politics, Peace, reform and liberation, edited by Robert Ingham and Duncan Brack.

Friday, November 11, 2011

How they are related: Anna Chancellor and HH Asquith

We all know that Helena Bonham Carter is the great grandaughter of Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, indeed she lives in his old house at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire. But I was curious to discover that she is not the only thespian of note descended from old Squiffy. Specifically Anna Chancellor of Spooks, The Hour and Hidden fame (and still better known as Duckface from Four weddings and a funeral) is his great great granddaughter.

Her great grandfather was Asquith's eldest son Raymond, whose tragic death on the Somme was symbolic of the 'lost generation' who fell in the first world war. Raymond's daughter Perdita was Anna Chancellor's grandmother.

In passing I might also mention that  her uncle is Alexander Chancellor, who edited the Spectator in the 1970s and 80s when it was an elegant, eclectic and enjoyable vehicle for fine writing rather than the organ of grim right-wing ideology it is today. And she is playing the lead role in Radio 4's current classic serial, an adaptation by Harold Pinter of Elizabeth Bowen's masterpiece The heat of the day, which is a cut above Spooks, Hidden and other such nonsense.

PS: Had I been blogging at the time I might have remarked that in January of this year, Raymond Asquith's son Julian died at the age of 94. He was just the second Earl of Oxford and Asquith, having inherited the title from his grandfather the former prime minister in 1928. He was therefore an earl for 83 years.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Should a Liberal really be advocating compulsory cycle helmets?

I see via Jonathan Calder at Liberal England that Lib Dem MP Annette Brooke's private members bill to make it compulsory for cyclists to wear a helmet has not been given a second reading.

Jonathan reiterates his opposition to compulsion and cites research that it simply reduces the number of cyclists on the road. I am probably a case in point on this. I own a bicycle, but use it all too rarely even though I do enjoy a nice cycle ride. I am middle aged, overweight and am trying to make an effort to eat less and take more exercise. This could include cycling. But it is already a bit of a palaver, remembering where the pump is, checking that the lights are working etc. Having to buy a helmet, find it when I need it and then wear the horrible thing on my head would pretty much guarantee that the bicycle will remain in the shed. I suspect a lot of occasional, recreational cyclists would feel the same.

[EDIT: Perhaps I should have looked a little further before posting the above. I see the bill was aimed at under-14s. But the point still stands - both as regards children who use their bike only occasionally and in that if legislation was passed for under-14s there would soon be pressure to extend it to apply to adults.]

Leaving aside the practical arguments, it annoys me when Liberal Democrats are in the forefront of trying to implement such petty restrictions on personal freedom. Over the years my libertarian instincts have been increasingly tempered by pragmatism. We are not a Libertarian party and are hardly going to call for an end to seatbelt laws or to reverse the smoking ban. But  for me, the correct position for Liberals on such matters is that of sceptics not cheerleaders. We should be the ones wanting to see clear and overwhelming evidence that the social good outweighs the infringement of personal choice. So I am disappointed that a bill such as this was put forward by a Liberal Democrat MP

Sunday, November 06, 2011

CD Review: The Bangles 'Sweetheart of the Sun'

Conventional wisdom has it about right regarding the oeuvre of The Bangles. Their first album, 1984’s All Over The Place, was a fine example of the emerging sixties-influenced guitar-based, jangle-pop ‘Paisley underground’ thing that was happening at that time.

Instead of continuing in similar vein, the band sought a short-cut to stardom, through songs such as Manic Monday and Walks like an Egyptian, enjoyable pop confections in themselves, but less than the band was capable of creatively. And then of coure they recorded the excruciating power ballad Eternal Flame.

So I wouldn’t have bothered with their latest effort Sweetheart of the Sun had I not needed to use up eMusic downloads before they expired and chosen this in haste because I had at least heard of the ban. It is pleasing to find that this album is really rather good, a worthy successor to All Over The Place. Unlike their intervening efforts, most of the material is written by group members without outside help.

All the things that made The Bangles worth listening to in the first place are here: pleasing harmonies, jangling guitars, memorable songs with soaring choruses. Beatles, Byrds and REM influences very much to the fore. Songs like the opener ‘Anna Lee’ and ‘I’ll never be through with you’ even sound like potential hit singles. The only complaint (as more than one reviewer has commented) is that some of the lead vocals sound strained – as if a nasty cold virus was going round and the group members hadn’t quite recovered when they recorded their vocals.

In case it seems a strange leap from writing about CD by the respected-but-obscure Jayhawks to the well-known-but-lightweight Bangles, it’s worth remarking that the producer of this album, Matthew Sweet, has also co-written and recorded with The Jayhawks, while Bangle Susanna Hoffs sang on Jayhawk Gary Louris’s solo album Vagabonds. Degrees of separation and all that.

For some reason I don't seem to be able to embed videos right now but here is a youtube link to a song from the album.